The class ceiling

Thirty years ago, at another moment of recession and national malaise in the United States, Lisa Birnbach, then 23, edited and co-wrote The Official Preppy Handbook, a guide on how to dress and behave like old money, ie those who went to prep schools (the US term for public schools), and then on to Ivy League colleges.

The hangover of the 1970s was coming to an end, Ronald Reagan was about to enter the White House, and small “c” conservatism of the sexually restrained, personal comportment variety was about to enjoy a resurgence every bit as strong as Milton Friedman. Lacoste was back, the collars were turned up and, after 20 years in the fashion wilderness, the establishment had found its groove again. It was hip to be square, or at least to dress that way. Birnbach’s book spent 38 weeks at the top of The New York Times bestseller list in 1980, helping to launch a remarkably enduring trend in US culture: the commodity fetishisation of that etiolated species, the American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp).

For most of the nation’s history, male Wasps more or less ran the place, occupying virtually every position of political and financial power in the US. This is no longer the case. There could be no clearer signal of this than the composition of the Supreme Court, the institution traditionally requiring the greatest educational pedigree. It is made up of three Jews and six Catholics, and is one third female. There is a Latina and an African-American but not a single Protestant.

Strangely enough, it was just around the time when this class hegemony began to fade for good in the late 1970s and early 1980s that people became so enamoured of the clothing worn by Wasps, particularly when on summer holiday. From Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger to the revival of Abercrombie & Fitch, the fading old Wasp clothier, via Bruce Weber’s photographs of shirtless young Aryans playing touch football on vast and perfect lawns, mainstream US fashion has for years now been peddling the fantasy of life as an endless Nantucket house party.

Why? What is so appealing, after all, about faded chinos and wooden tennis rackets? The simple answer is that they are subtle symbols of exclusivity. The Wasp ascendancy in America was characterised by nothing if not its private clubs and private schools. When my mother was growing up in Rye, New York, she had no idea there was any such thing as class. She just knew that for some reason she always had to hop across a fence at the beach club if she wanted to see her Jewish friends at the club next door.

The brands cheerfully hawking the clothing styles of that smug, bygone era are selling a little piece of that feeling of privilege. This aspirational identification with the rich and leisured is by no means limited to the style choices of twentysomethings. When Democrats tried to tell Midwestern farmers and small businesses in the 1990s that they should simply ignore Republicans seeking their votes with the promise to repeal the estate, or so-called death tax, because the farmers and small businesses would never, in fact, have to pay it, Democrats were commonly met with the retort, “Are you telling me I’m not going to have five million by the time I die?” This ambition to upward social mobility is woven into the fabric of US life. In the 20th century, postwar affluence made upward mobility a reality for a good 40 years.

But, as Timothy Noah’s recent series for the online magazine Slate on the “Great Divergence” points out, that class elevator began stalling decades ago. The US now has the sad distinction of having created the greatest income inequality in the developed world: 1 per cent of the country owns a quarter of all the wealth. Americans still rank first in the belief that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” ie in meritocratic advancement. However, the reality is that it’s in social democratic redoubts such as Denmark and Sweden rather than in the US that a son of the lower middle class is more likely to fare better than his father.

If you thought the great recession, having focused the public’s rage on bankers’ profits not exactly tied to their “intelligence and skill”, might endanger this belief and spur something more like class politics, you’d be wrong. As the drab, farcical midterm elections approach, the supposedly populist Tea Party is being funded by a billionaire patron of the fine arts and Democrats are tossing aside their fleeting Keynesianism like last year’s iPhone. Meanwhile, preppy is back and as strong as ever.

Birnbach has joined forces with renowned book designer Chip Kidd to produce True Prep, an update to The Official Preppy Handbook. It features wonderfully campy advice for preppies and aspiring preppies, such as where to carry your mobile phone (not on a belt clip, please) what to do about leather sandals (take them to a charity shop), and the desirability of wearing worn shirt collars (old money should look old). And, of course, do go to Andover and Yale.

To some British ears, this may all sound like another amusing bit of American postmodernism in which the few remnants of traditional culture anyone still remembers are satirised, commodified, and turned into a costume party. But then Britain has its Sloane Rangers, who have been similarly reified through satire into a lifestyle option (complete with guidebooks). They are close cousins to the preppies, people who are supposed to have country houses and have been to the right schools simply because that’s what one does. In the hypermarket of global luxury branding, the labels associated with these lifestyles attract not only middle-class aspirants but, God forbid, the lower orders: the chavs wear Burberry and its knock-offs just as Ralph Lauren is taken up by urban black kids who wouldn’t know Groton School from Exeter.

So has class simply become a drag show, on both sides of the Atlantic? And as America ripens into a slowly decaying empire, following in England’s footsteps, is its understanding of social class any longer different than the mother country’s?

I’ve spent most of my life going back and forth between the two places, being born to an American mother and a British father. In my experience, the differences that do persist still lead to a subtly pervasive contrast in outlook. The most obvious distinction is accent. In Britain, it instantly places one on a class scale, and a highly calibrated one at that. Between Prince Charles and the Glaswegian council estate exists a host of subtler distinctions, each signifying to any native speaker likely (though no longer certain) facts about educational background, family wealth, and professional status. This effects the results of whatever advancements have occurred in making Britain a more meritocratic country.

This is far less true in the US. To be sure, there are regional accents, most notably in the south, and, as in Britain, to have a particularly strong one is a likely indicator that you aren’t part of the well travelled upper-middle class. But the calibration of the US scale is crude by comparison. At law school, a friend from Florida, who came from a working class family of Christian fundamentalists pronounced his English no differently than a friend who was the son of a partner at Goldman Sachs and who had attended the Dalton School. The way they spoke didn’t tell me much about where they came from or who their parents were.

In fact, the idea of an upper-class accent in the US is still a British one (they’re not too particular about which kind), suggesting a remarkably unbroken line of American opinion on the British as haughty and over-refined, a view that runs straight back to the revolution with the rejection of all that royal pomp and circumstance (for most Americans, the social realities of contemporary Britain are invisible, not least because any time the Brits score a TV hit, the Americans remake/ruin it, whereas Brits have been watching American television for decades).

It strikes me this is one of the main reasons that in Britain there is the sense, albeit ameliorated from 30 or 40 years ago, of “knowing one’s place”. Accent, and the history of your family’s class that it serves to announce every day, limits the imagined possibilities of upwardly mobile self-transformation. It’s a matter of expectations and atmospherics. Americans not to-the-manor-born experience that same lack of entitlement but, as with so many other aspects of American life, the evidence of this family history fades quickly.

The evidence, but not the reality. As John Lennon sang, “You think you’re so clever, and classless, and free.” And by and large, Americans do. What you might call its elite meritocracy provides a steady stream of storylines that tell us family history has no determinative influence. Bill Clinton grew up in a trailer home; Barack Obama was the biracial son of a single mother. The national myth that any school child can grow up to be president occludes with remarkable completeness the “Great Divergence” going on all about us. The walls of privilege are getting higher, not lower. A good friend of mine teaches at a private middle school, a very preppy place in Massachusetts, where some 11- and 12-year-olds have chauffeurs to drop them off and take them home, where nannies and French tutors await. These students will “compete” in our “meritocracy” for positions at the best universities against children whose teachers have to buy basic supplies out of their own meagre salaries.

It is the illusion of classlessness that underwrites Americans’ famous capacity for optimism. Travelling this summer I met an American fellow in his late twenties, a former dancer, singer, actor, author, and entrepreneur trying to raise money for a web venture he claimed would one day be mentioned alongside Google and Amazon. Perhaps it will. A month earlier, a Brit I met in Rome, a man of the same age and education, greeted me with a quiet barrage of self-deprecation before allowing that his plan was to return to London to live with his mum and possibly get on an ancient history course. The American imagined he’d be a billionaire one day. The Brit supposed he’d probably get by. In my experience, this difference has repeated itself again and again. From the time I was a schoolboy in Oxfordshire to living now as an adult in New York City, I have always felt a pessimist among optimists in the US and as an optimist among pessimists in Britain. The mildly grim ethos of “making do”, that long shadow of the old “Blitz spirit” simply doesn’t exist in the US. It’s foreign to the American make-up.

Such assumptions are hard to pin down but signs of them are everywhere. Take advertising, which relies on a shared set of public attitudes to speak to its audience. A campaign to raise awareness of prostate cancer in Britain featured a comedian standing at his own grave, telling the audience that the disease killed more men than his wife’s cooking. Meanwhile, Virgin Active’s advertisements on the Tube for its health clubs featured the torso of a man with sagging breasts (moobs) and the tag line: “Leave the cleavage to the ladies!” You don’t see a lot of decaying bodies or dead comedians on New York City subway posters, let alone billboards in Nebraska. To the permanently adolescent mind of the American public imagination, death is an embarrassment not an earthy joke. Gyms are advertised with perfect bodies and cancer research is promoted in soothing pastels. Perfection is always available in the US, death always avoidable. If class represents a form of boundedness, a limit on the individual’s capacity to transcend circumstance, then it must not exist. It must be an illusion – an idea that in Britain simply makes no sense.

So – despite the economic gloom, the unemployment, the slumping housing prices, the worries over a double-dip recession – in the US there remains the perfectly equal opportunity to get lost in dreams of wealth and fame. And to dress like the last scion of a dwindling industrial fortune while you’re at it.

Adam Haslett’s first novel ‘Union Atlantic’ was published this year by Atlantic Books in Britain and by Doubleday in the US


How the preppy look became big in Japan

In the early 1960s a team of four design-conscious young Japanese men travelled to the US East Coast to document the everyday lives and style of the young men of eight elite Ivy League colleges, including Yale and Princeton, writes Isabel Berwick.

The resulting photo-essay, Take Ivy, was published in Japan in 1965 and became a cult classic, boosting the popularity of the preppy look among fashionable young Japanese.

Designed to be “an invaluable documentary of appropriate dress codes on campuses”, it is also a record of a way of life, and of a look that remains undated.

Only the details – old cars, and relatively few women – give away the fact that these photographs come from another era, and not from a contemporary Jack Wills or J Crew clothing catalogue.

Rare copies of Take Ivy in Japanese have sold for hundreds of dollars online but this month the book will get a new lease of life as it is republished, in English for the first time, and at a reasonable price (£17.99). According to fans, the book’s odd title comes from combining “Take Five”, a jazz piece first recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, with Ivy League – jazz being as big an influence in 1960s Japan as preppy clothing.

Tyler Brûlé, FT columnist and editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine, says it is the very “proper” nature of Japanese society that makes it receptive to the smart East Coast aesthetic. “It’s that sense of making an effort, and in Japan everything is amplified as well – you get people reinterpreting the look,” he says. This is not just a nostalgic sense of style – it’s now seen on everyone from teenagers to grandfathers, as well as in current issues of men’s magazines.

The 2010 re-issue of the 45-year-old Take Ivy is timely. “The Japanese are huge on authenticity,” Brûlé says. While most East Coast shoemakers now have factories abroad, “the remaining shoe brands have Japan to thank for keeping them alive”. Japanese preppy favourites include footwear by Quoddy (“handsewn in Maine since 1909”) and Alden (made in Middleborough, Massachusetts, since 1884).

‘Take Ivy’ is published on October 14 by powerHouse; More columns by Tyler Brûlé’s at www.ft.com/tylerbrule

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